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AT&T – Time Warner Merger Sails Into Rough Waters Over CNN

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. antitrust regulators believe that AT&T Inc’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Inc would raise costs for rival entertainment distributors and stifle innovation, a Department of Justice official told Reuters on Thursday.

Allaying those concerns is the rationale for the Justice Department’s demand that AT&T sell assets in order for the deal to be approved, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Justice Department wants AT&T to sell its DirecTV unit or sell Time Warner’s Turner Broadcasting unit, which includes news company CNN, sources told Reuters on Wednesday.

AT&T has signaled it would not agree to sell DirecTV, which it acquired for $49 billion in 2015, leaving CNN and other cable TV assets as the main sticking point in negotiations between the Justice Department and AT&T.

The antitrust regulator is worried the combined company could make it harder for rivals to deliver content to consumers using new technologies, the official said. AT&T has said it wants to disrupt “entrenched pay TV models.”

The Justice Department’s desire for asset sales has raised concerns about political influence on the $85.4 billion deal, given U.S. President Donald Trump’s frequent criticism of CNN. As a candidate, Trump vowed to block the deal shortly after it was announced in October 2016, but has not addressed the issue publicly as president.

The head of the Justice Department’s antitrust division, Makan Delrahim, said in a statement late on Thursday that he has “never been instructed by the White House” on the AT&T deal.

Raj Shah, a White House spokesman, said in a separate statement that Trump “did not speak with the Attorney General about this matter, and no White House official was authorized speak with the Department of Justice on this matter.”

AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson defended the merger at a New York City media conference on Thursday, and said he did not want to sell CNN.

The company has opposed divesting assets and has told the government it is willing to fight in court to win approval, sources said on Wednesday.

The deal is opposed by an array of rivals and consumer groups worried that it would give the combined company too much power. Opponents are pushing for conditions that would limit AT&T’s ability to charge media rivals higher prices to carry Time Warner content.

Shares of Time Warner were down slightly in afternoon trading at $88.35. AT&T shares rose 2 percent to $34.09.

Charter/Spectrum Will Offer Gigabit Speeds Using DOCSIS 3.1

Charter Communications has informed shareholders it will soon introduce gigabit speed broadband plans in select cities.

“In a couple of months, we’ll launch gigabit speeds offerings in several key markets using DOCSIS 3.1, with more launches planned through 2018,” said Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge. “We expect DOCSIS 3.1 modems to be priced similarly to DOCSIS 3.0 modems when purchased at scale, and we’ll begin to buy exclusively DOCSIS 3.1 modems and drive higher entry-level speeds.”

Charter will not be following Comcast and Altice with fiber to the home upgrades for customers looking for the fastest possible speed. Instead, it will begin limited rollouts of current DOCSIS 3.1 technology, which will support gigabit download speeds with a considerably more limited upload speed.

Charter may have accidentally leaked the first place it plans to offer gigabit service – Oahu, Hawaii, by jumping the gun on a support page (quickly removed yesterday) discovered by a DSL Reports reader.

Charter executives have consistently told shareholders the priority for the company this year is to continue upgrading its acquired Time Warner Cable and Bright House cable systems to support Spectrum’s standardized internet speed of 100Mbps. (An unadvertised upgrade option to 300Mbps is also available for approximately $105/mo with a one time $199.99 upgrade fee. Legacy markets still awaiting upgrades continue to receive 60Mbps with an unadvertised upgrade option to 100Mbps for approximately $105/mo with a one time $199.99 upgrade fee.)

Charter is facing competitive pressure from Google and telephone company competitors upgrading to fiber to the home service. Hawaiian Telcom, for example, now offers gigabit broadband options on Oahu. Charter’s gigabit offerings are most likely to be introduced in markets where it already faces gigabit competition. For areas that don’t, Charter is moving forward with less dramatic upgrades that currently top out at 300Mbps.

“As of today, we offer [standard] internet speeds of 100Mbps in over 75% of our entire footprint, up from just 50% at the end of the second quarter,” added Rutledge. “And we expect to offer minimum speeds in excess of 100Mbps in nearly all of our passings by year-end.”

Rutledge did not define what the next set of broadband speed tiers would be.

Rutledge also announced new Spectrum broadband customers would be getting an improved Wi-Fi router, known as Wave 2, specifically developed and designed by Charter’s engineers.

“It has much faster speeds and even better propagation of reliability throughout the home,” Rutledge offered.

Outage Hits Comcast, Other Internet Customers; CenturyLink’s Level 3 Takes Responsibility

Phillip Dampier November 6, 2017 CenturyLink, Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News No Comments

The culprit?

A major internet outage is affecting internet users nationwide since this morning, particularly those subscribed to Comcast’s internet service.

“Some customers are having issues with their XFINITY Internet service. We apologize & appreciate your patience while we work to fix,” Comcast tweeted to its customers this morning.

The outages are not just affecting Comcast customers, however, with sporadic slowdowns and problems also reported by Charter/Spectrum, AT&T, and Verizon customers.

One factor that may explain the outage affecting customers beyond Comcast is CenturyLink’s Level 3, which provides backbone services for several ISPs.

Outages affecting Level 3 just happen to be in major Comcast service areas.

Level 3 eventually did take responsibility for the outage in a statement to the media:

On Monday, Nov. 6, our network experienced a service disruption affecting some customers with IP-based services. The disruption was caused by a configuration error. We know how important these services are to our customers. Our technicians were able to restore service within approximately 90 minutes.

On Nov. 1, Level 3 officially became part of CenturyLink, as part of a $30 billion acquisition. Hopefully CenturyLink will spend a bit more and build additional redundancy into Level 3’s network.

As of 30 minutes ago, Comcast claims the internet outage has eased.

The Great Telecom Merger Carousel: Altice <-> Sprint <-> T-Mobile <-> Charter

A last-ditch effort last weekend by executives of SoftBank and Deutsche Telekom to overcome their differences in merging Sprint with T-Mobile USA ended in failure, killing Wall Street’s hopes combining the two scrappiest wireless carriers would end a bruising price war that had heated up competition and hurt profits at all four of America’s leading wireless companies.

Now Wall Street, hungry for a consolidation deal, is strategizing what will come next.

Sprint/T-Mobile Merger

In the end, SoftBank’s chairman, Masayoshi Son, simply did not want to give up control of Sprint to Deutsche Telekom, especially considering Sprint’s vast wireless spectrum holdings suitable for future 5G wireless services.

The failure caused Sprint Corp. shares and bonds to plummet, and spooked investors are worried Sprint’s decade-long inability to earn a profit won’t end anytime soon. Sprint’s 2010 Network Vision Plan, which promised better coverage and network performance, also helped to load the company with debt, nearly half of which Sprint has to pay back over the next four years before it becomes due. Sprint’s perpetual upgrades have not tremendously improved its network coverage or performance, and its poor performance ratings have caused many customers to look elsewhere for wireless service.

Investors are also concerned Sprint will struggle to pay its current debts at the same time it faces new ones from investments in next generation 5G wireless technology. Scared shareholders have been comforted this morning by both Son and Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure in an all-out damage control campaign.

Son has promised the now-orphaned Sprint will benefit from an increased stake in the company by SoftBank — a signal to investors SoftBank is tying itself closer to Sprint. Son has also promised additional investments to launch yet another wave of network upgrades for Sprint’s fourth place network. But nothing is expected to change very quickly for customers, who may be in for a rough ride for the immediate future. Son has already said his commitment to raise Sprint’s capital expenditures from the current $3.5-4 billion to $5-6 billion annually will not begin this year. Analysts claim Sprint needs at least $5-6 billion annually to invest in network improvements if it ever hopes to catch up to T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon Wireless.

Masayoshi Son, chairman of SoftBank Group

“Even if the next three-four years will be a tough battle, five to 10 years later it will be clear that this is a strategically invaluable business,’’ Son said, lamenting losing control of that business in a deal with T-Mobile was simply impossible. “There was just a line we couldn’t cross, and that’s how we arrived at the conclusion.”

During a call with analysts on Monday, Sprint’s chief financial officer Tarek Robbiati acknowledged investors’ disappointment.

Investors were hoping for an end to deep discounting and perks given to attract new business. T-Mobile’s giveaways and discounting have reduced the company’s profitability. Sprint’s latest promotions, including giving away service for up to a year, were seen by analysts as desperate.

Son’s own vision plan doesn’t dwell on the short-term, mapping out SoftBank’s progress over the next 300 years. But for now, Son is concerned with supporting the investments already made in the $100 billion Vision Fund Son has built with Saudi Arabia’s oil wealth-fueled Public Investment Fund. Its goal is to lead in the field of next generation wireless communications networks. Sprint is expected to be a springboard for those investments in the United States, supported by the wireless company’s huge 2.5GHz spectrum holdings, which may be perfect for 5G wireless networks.

But Son’s own failures are also responsible for Sprint’s current plight. Son attempted to cover his losses in Sprint by pursuing a merger with T-Mobile in 2014, but the merger fell apart when it became clear the Obama Administration’s regulators were unlikely to approve the deal. After that deal fell apart, Son has allowed T-Mobile to overtake Sprint’s third place position in the wireless market. While T-Mobile grew from 53 million customers to 70.7 million today, Sprint lost one million customers, dropping to fourth place with around 54 million current customers.

Son’s answer to the new competition was to change top management. Incoming Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure promptly launched a massive cost-cutting program and layoffs, and upgrade-oriented investments in Sprint’s network stagnated, causing speeds and performance to decline.

Claure tweetstormed damage control messages about the merger’s collapse, switching from promoting the merger’s benefits to claims of relief the merger collapsed:

  • “Jointly stopping merger talks was right move.”
  • Sprint is a vital part of a larger SoftBank strategy involving the Vision Fund, Arm, OneWeb and other strategic investments.”
  • “Excited about Sprint’s future as a standalone. I’m confident this is right decision for our shareholders, customers & employees.”
  • “Sprint added over 1 million customers last year – we have gone from losing to winning.”
  • “Last quarter we delivered an estimated 22% of industry postpaid phone gross additions, our highest share ever.”
  • “Sprint network performance is at best ever levels – 33% improvement in nationwide data speeds year over year.”
  • “We are planning significant investments to the Sprint network this year and the years to come.”
  • “In the last 3 years we’ve reduced our costs by over $5 billion.”
  • “Sprint’s results are the best we’ve achieved in a decade and we will continue getting better every day.”

In Saturday’s joint announcement, Claure said that “while we couldn’t reach an agreement to combine our companies, we certainly recognize the benefits of scale through a potential combination. However, we have agreed that it is best to move forward on our own. We know we have significant assets, including our rich spectrum holdings, and are accelerating significant investments in our network to ensure our continued growth.”

“They need to spend (more) money on the network,” said William Ho, an analyst at 556 Ventures LLC.

CNBC reports Sprint’s end of its T-Mobile merger deal has hammered the company’s stock. What does Sprint do now? (1:30)

Sprint/Altice Partnership

Sprint executives hurried out word on ‘Damage Control’ Monday that Altice USA would partner with Sprint to resell wireless service under the Altice brand. In return for the partnership, Sprint will be able to use Altice’s fiber network in Cablevision’s service area in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut for its cell towers and future 5G small cells. The deal closely aligns to Comcast and Charter’s deal with Verizon allowing those cable operators to create their own cellular brands powered by Verizon Wireless’ network.

An analyst at Cowen & Co., suspected the Altice deal may be a trial to test the waters with Sprint before Altice commits to a future merger between the two companies. Altice is hungry for expansion, currently owning Cablevision and Suddenlink cable operators in the U.S. But Altice has a very small footprint in the U.S., leading some analysts to believe a more lucrative merger might be possible elsewhere.

Sprint/Charter Merger

Charter Communications Logo. (PRNewsFoto/Charter Communications, Inc.)

Charter Communications stock was up more than 7% in early Monday morning trading as a result of speculation SoftBank and Charter Communications were restarting merger talks after a deal with T-Mobile collapsed.

CNBC reported that Mr. Son was willing to resume talks with Charter executives about a merger between the cable operator and Sprint. Charter executives have shown little interest in the deal, still distracted trying to merge their acquisitions Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks into Charter’s current operation. Charter’s entry into wireless has been more tentative, following Comcast with a partnership with Verizon Wireless to resell that considerably stronger network under the Charter brand beginning sometime in 2018.

According to CNBC, John Malone’s Liberty Media, which owns a 27% stake in Charter, is now in favor of a deal, while Charter’s top executives are still opposed.

CNBC reports Charter and Sprint may soon be talking again about a merger between the two. (6:33)

Dish Networks <-> T-Mobile USA

Wall Street’s merger-focused analysts are hungry for a deal now that the Sprint/T-Mobile merger has collapsed. Pivotal Research Group is predicting good things are possible for shareholders of Dish Network, and upgraded the stock to a “buy” recommendation this morning.

Jeff Wlodarczak, Pivotal’s CEO and senior media analyst, theorizes that Sprint’s merger collapse could be good news for Dish, sitting on a large amount of unused wireless spectrum suitable for 5G wireless networks. Those licenses, estimated to be worth $10 billion, are likely to rise in value as wireless companies look for suitable spectrum to deploy next generation 5G networks.

Multichannel News quotes Wlodarczak’s note to investors:

“In our opinion, post the T-Mobile-Sprint deal failure there is a reasonable chance that T-Mobile could make a play for Dish or Dish spectrum as it would immediately vault the most disruptive U.S. wireless player into the leading U.S. spectrum position (w/ substantially more spectrum than underpins Verizon’s “best in class” network),” Wlodarczak wrote. “This possible move could force Verizon to counter-bid for Dish spectrum (or possibly the entire company) as Dish spectrum is ideally suited for Verizon and to keep it out of T-Mobile’s hands.”

AT&T/DirecTV Buyout of Dish Network

Wlodarczak has also advised clients he believes the deregulation-friendly Trump Administration would not block the creation of a satellite TV monopoly, meaning AT&T should consider pairing its DirecTV service with an acquisition of Dish Networks’ satellite TV business, even if it forgoes Dish’s valuable wireless spectrum.

“AT&T, post their Time Warner deal, could (and frankly should) be interested in purchasing Dish’s core DBS business taking advantage of a potentially more laissez faire regulatory climate/emergence of V-MVPD’s, to significantly bolster their DirecTV business (and help to justify the original questionable DirecTV deal) by creating a SatTV monopoly in ~10-15M US households, increased programming scale and massive synergies at a likely very attractive price.”

Such a transaction would likely resemble the regulatory approval granted to merge XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio into SiriusXM Satellite Radio in 2008. Despite the merger, just months after its approval, the combined company neared bankruptcy until it was bailed out with a $530 million loan from John Malone’s Liberty Media in February 2009. Liberty Media maintains an active interest in the satellite radio company to this day.

Finding The Truth About West Virginia’s Bad Broadband; Here’s How You Can Help

If advertised claims of lightning fast DSL internet don’t match reality, it never hurts to bring evidence to the table if you want to prove your state’s biggest telecom company is lying through its teeth.

West Virginia’s Broadband Council wants to understand just how awful broadband is in the state, despite glowing rhetoric from cable and phone companies that promise fast connections that rarely deliver to beleaguered broadband users. The Council has created its own Speed Test Portal for the state’s broadband users to test their internet speed. The results will also provide data about real world broadband performance to generate a new statewide broadband map that will clearly identify where broadband performs, where it doesn’t, and where it doesn’t exist.

“The speed test is really important,” Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher said. “This is one of those things where before you know where you’re going to go, you have to know where you are. So we’re trying to identify what type of broadband service we have. That’s what the speed tests do for us. We want people to take the speed test, send it in and from there, we will create a map of where we are in the state of West Virginia and identify where our priorities should be. From that, we can identify where we are strong and where we are weak. We can identify where to prioritize areas to put funding and resources to generate broadband connectivity.”

The Council wants residents to test early, test often, and test on every computer they can find to make the data as meaningful as possible.

“With this information, the Broadband Council will work with local governments to help bring affordable broadband service to underserved and unserved areas of the state,” Council Chairman Robert Hinton said in a recent Department of Commerce news release.

One of the responsibilities of the Council is determining whether providers are delivering the speeds they advertise to state residents. West Virginia is ranked 48th worst out of the 50 states for the percentage of residents without access to broadband service. The state’s incumbent phone company, Frontier Communications, controls virtually all the state’s telephone lines. Its DSL service is not well regarded by customers and its poor performance led to a $150 million settlement with West Virginia’s Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in 2015 for deceptive claims about its DSL service.

Behind the scenes, the Broadband Council is also attempting to build an evidentiary record of “discrepancies between the service the incumbent has claimed to provide and the service the incumbent has actually provided.” If the Council can show Frontier is failing to meet its service requirements, it is hoping the FCC will open broadband funding to other providers in unserved and underserved areas in the state, some potentially offering fiber optic broadband. That would, they argue, be a better use of limited Connect America Fund resources than funding further expansion of Frontier’s DSL service.

In a filing with the FCC in response, Frontier said the Council’s solution is “misplaced and inappropriate.” It asked the FCC to reject the proposal and instead increase funding available to Frontier for rural broadband expansion in West Virginia. For Frontier, the metric that matters the most is that the company “well ahead of schedule” to meet the federal program’s requirements.

“Because Frontier is often alone in undertaking the challenge of providing any landline internet service to the most rural and remote areas in the state, Frontier is often the brunt of dissatisfaction, as expressed in the Council’s letter, with the available speeds and technologies in those areas,” Frontier said.

In October, Frontier waived away a demand to return $4.7 million in funds an inspector general claimed were the result of padded invoices with phony extra charges and improper reimbursements for “unreasonable and unallowable” fees.

In a letter to West Virginia Chief Technology Officer John Dunlap, Frontier made it clear that West Virginia taxpayers were effectively on the hook for the money, noting any funds the state might return to the federal government “are, of course, not recoverable from Frontier.”

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